The Best Train Book of 2014

Recommending a terrific book and wondering why I missed its publication.

September 21, 2014

Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World-from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief by Tom Zoellner.

Published in January of 2014.

Are there any universities on trains? 

There is a university on a ship, right? 

Why not put a university on a train.

I love trains.  Give me a choice of mode of transport, and I’ll choose the train every time.  Alas, I am a citizen of the United States of America - and a decision to go by Amtrak must usually be made without the benefit of logic.  Yes, the Northeast Regional between Boston, NY, and DC (with New Haven thrown in) is often the best way to go.  This is also Amtrak’s only money making route (throwing in the Acela Express running along the same corridor).  Every other Amtrak route is slow, expensive, and costly for taxpayers.  

Why should this be?  Why should the U.S. have such expensive, inconvenient, and slow passenger rail service as compared to every other developed (or many developing) countries on the planet?  What we learn in Tom Zoellner’s wonderful book is that it is neither realistic or fair to expect Amtrak to break even.  Passenger rail service in Europe and Asia is subsidized at much great levels than the U.S.   Public spending on rail service far outstrips any investment in the U.S., as the Europeans and Japanese view passenger rails as a public good.  China is now leapfrogging everyone else with a rapid buildout of high speed trains. Built perhaps with a little too much haste, given the recent accidents along Chinese high speed rail routes.

Zoellner’s method of relating the history, economics, and sociology of train travel is to spend lots of time riding trains.  He rides from New York to Los Angeles, over the Peruvian Andes, across Russia (almost), and through Spain and England.  He rides from Beijing to Tibet.  Along the way, Zoellner chats with everyone he meets on the train.  Passengers and conductors, rail enthusiasts (foamers), politicians, and transportation planners.  We learn the history of rail travel in each country that he travels, from the birth of trains in early 19th England, to the attempts of the Chinese Communist Party to use trains as a means of social and political control.

This is a book that almost got away.  Despite my love of the topic, and my admiration for the author (I had read and enjoyed his earlier 2010 book called Uranium), it was only by chance that I found this book.  It was while browsing at the Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock VT (the oldest continuously operated bookstore in VT - going strong since 1935), that I ran across Train. This book had not been recommended to me by Amazon, Goodreads, a librarian or a friend.  I had not read any book reviews.  Train was not on my radar.  

How many other wonderful books am I missing?  Books that I will be poorer for not only not having read, but for not knowing of their existence.  Am I too dependent on Amazon to filter my book selection process?  (To ask that question is to answer it).  Is there a better way to find the books we should be reading?

What are you reading?


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